American POWs in German Captivity

It is estimated that more than 120,000 American soldiers were captured during World War II. Nearly 94,000 of those soldiers were held in POW camps located in Europe. These camps were primarily operated by the Germans.

In the autumn of 1942, the majority of the American POWs were crews of shot-down aircraft (most frequently bombers). The Germans initially held them with the British prisoners (the first Americans captured by the Germans were actually pilots in the service of the RAF) in the Stalag Luft (Air Force) camps.

This arrangement changed with the intensification of the fighting in North Africa, and the Allied offensive of November 1942, to which the U.S. Ground Forces contributed troops.

By June 1943, the Germans had interned more than 8,800 soldiers of the U.S. Ground Forces across 16 different camps. The largest contingent (1,667) was held at Stalag III B Fürstenberg.

The sharpest increase in the number of American POWs captured by the Germans took place after the Normandy landings, in the second half of 1944. Out of the approximately 94,000 American POWs, at least a staggering 75% were captured over the course of the final 12 months of the war in Europe.

According to the official data published by the American government in November 1945--after the fighting subsided in both Europe and the Pacific--out of all American World War II POWs, 1/3 were members of the Air Force and the remaining 2/3 were part of the Ground Forces. Officers made up approximately half of the former, but only 10% of the latter. The number of American Navy soldiers captured was relatively small.

The German camp infrastructure and the military administration operating it was well-established by the time the majority of American POWs had been captured. In addition, by then, the Wehrmacht had already developed procedures governing its cooperation with the Protecting Powers (which was Switzerland in the case of American POWs), the Red Cross, and the YMCA’s War Prisoners Aid. Without the support of these organizations,  life behind the  barbed wire would have certainly been more difficult.

The Allied victories on all fronts, from 1942 onward, resulted in an increasing number of German soldiers becoming prisoners of the Allies, including the USA. This increase in German POWs put pressure on Germany regarding their treatment of English-speaking prisoners. In short, this is why the Third Reich complied with the Geneva Convention of 1929 in its treatment of Anglo-Saxon POWs. The conditions of American prisoners were thus usually better than those in which Polish, Norwegian, French, Belgian or Yugoslavian (Serbian) soldiers were held, not to mention Soviet or Italian prisoners.

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